Can I check lumps with an ultrasound scan?

Getting a diagnostic scan

Mystery swellings, lumps and bumps are very common and although usually harmless, they can be worrying, unsightly and sometimes painful.

Lumps and swellings are mostly benign cysts - or a result of infections or injuries, but in some cases may be a cancer symptom. Not knowing what is causing the lump or bump can be a source of anxiety, especially if it's increasing in size or painful.

A simple soft tissue ultrasound scan is a useful first-line diagnostic tool to give you some answers as to what is going on (but breast lumps need to be examined and tested in specialist breast cancer clinics).

As a general rule, you should seek medical advice if any lump gets bigger, becomes painful, feels hard and grows back after it's been removed.

Common causes of lumps

Ganglion cysts

These are the most common type of cysts, usually found in the hand and wrist, but also other parts of the body, usually near a joint or tendon. They are harmless, fluid-filled cysts, which are smooth and round. Your doctor should be able to diagnose them easily, but if there's any uncertainty an ultrasound scan can be useful. Most go away on their own but if the ganglion persists and is painful you may need it drained with a needle or surgery.


These are fatty lumps, usually found on the back, shoulders, neck, arms or thighs. They're quite common and regarded as harmless and usually disappear on their own. They feel soft when you press them. Occasionally a doctor may want to perform a biopsy to check they aren't anything more concerning.


Sacs of fluid-filled lumps under the skin, usually full of pus, cysts are closer to the surface on the skin than lipomas and firmer to touch. They can disappear on their own or sometimes need draining with a needle.

Other common causes of lumps

Swollen lymph glands

Sometimes lumps appear on the neck; armpit or groin area and this can be a swollen lymph gland, which is usually caused by an infection. The swollen glands contain white blood cells that help to fight off bacteria and viruses that cause colds and glandular fever. They usually die down within a few days. Sometimes swollen lymph glands can be a sign of cancer (see below), so see your doctor if they persist.


These are lumps that pop out, caused by an internal part of the body pushing through a weakness in the muscle. You may notice a hernia when you're coughing or straining. There are various different types of hernia, but the most common place for them to occur is between the chest and hips. Most will pop back in if you lie down. However, if they persist or are causing you discomfort, seek medical advice, as some may need surgery. In rare cases they can be medical emergencies - symptoms include sudden severe pain, the hernia becoming firm or tender and constipation.

Other situations where a soft tissue lumps and bumps scan may be useful include the investigation of skin changes, foreign bodies and any unexplained swelling in the body, including those related to injuries, such as sports injuries and sprains.


Your lump is least likely to be caused by cancer, but a soft tissue lumps and bumps ultrasound scan may be a helpful first line investigation to find out if more tests are needed. Learn more about ultrasound scans and if they can detect cancer.

Types of cancer causing lumps include:


Sometimes lumps are symptoms of this rare cancer of the connective tissue including muscle, bone, nerves, cartilage, tendons, blood vessels and the fatty and fibrous tissues. Sometimes a lump can look similar to a type of cancer called a liposarcoma. These develop from the fat cells found all over the body, but are most common on the trunk, limbs and the retroperitonieum (deep in the abdomen and pelvis).

Other cancers

Lumps in the armpit and neck can be a sign of cancer elsewhere that has spread to the lymph nodes. They can also be symptoms of Non Hodgkin Lymphoma, a group of blood cancers that start in the lymph nodes or lymphatic system. Other symptoms include tiredness and unexplained weight loss.